Nonfiction – Margaret McMullan, Where the Angels Lived: One Family’s Story of Exile, Loss, and Return
Margaret McMullen is the winner in Nonfiction for her memoir Where the Angels Lived: One Family’s Story of Exile, Loss, and Return. While visiting the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, McMullan discovered a relative who was killed during the Holocaust. Because so little was known about him, she felt a responsibility to find out more. The book came out of a Fulbright cultural exchange that made it possible for her to teach at a Hungarian University and travel to Pécs, the land of her mother’s Jewish lineage, to research her ancestor. Born in Newton, Mississippi, McMullen earned a BA degree in religious studies from Grinnell College and an MFA in fiction from the University of Arkansas. She served as Chair of the English Department at the University of Evansville. She is the author of nine award-winning books. Along with the Fulbright, McMullen is a recipient of a 2010 NEA Fellowship in literature, the National Author Winner of the 2011 Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana Authors Award, and many other awards. In 2007 she was the Eudora Welty Visiting Writer at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi. She won the MIAL Fiction award in 2005 and 2008. She lives and writes in Pass Christian, Mississippi.
I’d like to thank the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters for this award, which means everything coming from my home state.
I wrote Where the Angels Lived for my relative Richárd Engel de Jánosiand all the other members in my family who were murdered during the Holocaust. While researching the book in Hungary, my husband, son, and I became witnesses to Hungary’s past and present-day struggle with authoritative regimes. When we returned, we had no idea we would experience the same struggle in the United States.
Because of Angels, my mother opened up to me about her past and about her government work in the 1950s to “make the world safe for democracy.” Consequently, she received a private note and pendent of commendation for her service from the current director of the CIA, who read the book.
This book came out before the pandemic, so I was lucky enough to travel, meet readers, talk closely with them, and hug them.
I’ve been honored and humbled to speak at synagogues and Jewish Community Centers throughout the United States and Israel, meeting survivors who continue to share their survival stories, their scars, and the numbers tattooed on their arms.
One survivor, Rifka, recently called from Florida, where we met at a bookstore. She asked how my mother was doing, my son James, my husband Pat. She worried about us catching the coronavirus. Rifka is eighty-two. But she was worried about us.Like many survivors, Rifka wanted to discuss the current political situation, the rise in anti-Semitic violence, and the civil rights injustices in the United States since the 2016 elections.She said that after she left Bergen- Belsen concentration camp and after she learned that her parents and other family members were dead, she could only hate. But then an uncle found her and took her to Israel, where she said she learned how to love again. “The world now is a lot like I was after the war,” Rifka told me. “We need to learn how to love again.” Angels continues to bring me friends like Rifka. Thank you again, MIAL for this incredible honor.
The nonfiction judge, who asked to remain anonymous, stated: “Margaret McMullan’s Where the Angels Lived connects readers to its multigenerational search for home and meaning out of the ruins of the Holocaust. As I read this engrossing narrative in which family, memory, and history intersect in profound ways, the literary critic André Bleikasten's beautiful, hopeful paean about writing kept coming to mind: “To write is to blacken whiteness, to fill in gaps, to dress wounds.”